Q&A with Chef Ann Cooper

Getting kids to eat healthier meals is something most parents struggle with at some point. But school lunches, which are eaten away from home where parents aren't around to supervise, and where kids often face distraction from their peers, pose their own set of challenges.

Chef Ann Cooper, a nationally recognized pioneer in developing healthy lunch programs, has worked with school districts across the country for the past decade to ensure that kids have access to fresh, nutritious food. Recently, we had the chance to talk to Chef Ann and get her advice on preparing healthy school lunches that kids will eat.

Every parent knows the frustration of cleaning out their kid's backpack at the end of the day and finding a half-eaten lunch. Can you offer any strategies for getting kids to eat their lunch?

Ann Cooper: Get kids involved with the process. The more power we give children, and the more options we offer them, the better they'll eat. Present them with a few healthy lunch items, and then let them help prepare the food and pack their own lunchbox.

Kids get tired of eating the same thing, but it can be hard to come up with fresh ideas day after day. Any suggestions for easy, healthy lunchbox snacks that kids will love?

AC: Try sitting down with your children and brainstorming ideas together. You might be surprised with some of the combinations they come up with. I've learned that kids love dips. Try making one from low-fat yogurt mixed with honey and pack it along with strawberries and chunks of cantaloupe. Instead of chips, include some homemade popcorn. If regular sandwiches go uneaten, try wraps instead.

How about schools? What can they do to ensure that kids to eat a healthy lunch?

AC: Talk to your principal about scheduling recess before lunchtime. Research shows that this can go a long way towards getting kids to eat. When recess comes after lunch, kids rush through the meal so they can go play. But when lunch is after recess, kids are hungrier and ready to sit still. Since they've no place to go but back to the classroom once lunch is over, they tend to take their time.

Also, many lunch periods are too short, sometimes just 15 minutes. Schools need to allow at least 25 minutes, provide a comfortable lunchroom and use positive reinforcement to encourage kids to stay and finish their meal.

More tips from Chef Ann on getting kids to eat healthier meals:

  1. Be a good role model. The real problem with getting kids to eat healthier meals often lies with parents, not kids. Adults who live on a diet of soda and chips cannot realistically expect their children to want to eat whole grains and fresh fruits.
  2. Take your kids shopping. One of the best ways to help children learn about healthy food is to take them with you to the grocery store. Make sure you’re not in a hurry and spend time in the aisles that contain minimally processed foods—the produce department, meat and fish counter, the dairy aisle, and the bulk foods section, if your store has one. If your child expresses an interest in a certain fruit or vegetable, let them try it. Don’t assume they won’t like it.
  3. Be flexible. There’s nothing wrong with having a cookie every day if it’s balanced with a diet of healthy foods. A special treat every now and then won’t do any damage. It can actually help make eating a more enjoyable experience for your child.
  4. Make mealtimes special. First and foremost, sit down and enjoy your food. Take time to savor flavors. Make a ritual out of eating and give everyone a special task. You can even let kids have one night a week when they plan and help make dinner.
  5. Let kids help in the kitchen. Even a two-year-old can snap fresh green beans or tear lettuce into pieces for salad. Don’t automatically assume that a task will be too difficult. Know your child’s limits and help her succeed by providing support in a safe environment. Kids love to eat food they helped to make, and will be more likely to try new foods, including fruits and vegetables.
  6. Remember that you are the boss. Kids actually do much better when they know that there are limits to what they can eat. Listen to your children and help them set boundaries that guide them toward a healthier diet.

Want a fresh perspective on that brown bag staple—the sandwich? See what Chef Ann Cooper suggests for making the main attraction of your sack lunch more flavorful and fun.

Sound good? Tell us your thoughts.

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